We are admonished to honor our parents (Exodus 20:12). If we are single, our responsibility is to our own parents; but if we are married, our responsibility is not only to our parents, but to our in-laws as well. It is true that when we marry, we marry a family. Part of becoming one in marriage involves the sharing of all things, and that includes our parents.

The great Bible story of Ruth and Naomi illustrates for us a tender example of honoring one’s mother-in-law. Facing a famine in Judah, Naomi fled with her husband and two sons to the country of Moab. There they raised their sons and saw them married to Moabite women. When her husband and both sons died, Naomi decided to return to her native country of Judah. Although she encouraged her daughters-in-law to remain in their own country, Ruth chose to go with her, saying: “Where you go, I will go, and where you stay, I will stay. Your people shall be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16).

Ruth’s faithfulness to her mother-in-law resulted in her marriage to one of Naomi’s kinsmen and having the honor of being the great-grandmother of King David and a direct ancestor of Jesus, the Messiah.

God has called us to serve our mates and to honor our parents. These two foundational principles are vital in building friendships within the family. It will not always be easy. It may be inconvenient and costly to honor your parents. And you will not be able to please everyone. Your ultimate job is not to keep everyone happy, but to be faithful to God’s calling, which is to love your spouse, to nurture your children, and to care for your parents.

Six ways to nurture friendships with parents and in-laws

1. Expand the positives.  If we asked ourselves, “Whose approval do I most desire?” our parents and in-laws would rank somewhere near the top of the list. We want our parents to be proud of us, and we long for their approval. This desire can cause us to be overly sensitive to them, especially in the beginning of a new season of life.

As a newlywed, you decide to change your hairstyle. Your close friend says she thinks it looks best long. You take that as good advice. But if your mother-in-law says she’d like it long, you take it as interfering. Or, your toddler is misbehaving and your good friend says he needs a “time-out.” You may welcome her insights, but if your mother had been the one to say that, you might have taken it as criticism of your parenting skills: “How can she be so critical?” Or, you work hard to clean your house before your folks come over. They fail to comment on how lovely it looks, so you assume they are displeased.

It’s so easy to overreact or to give too much weight to our parents’ comments or lack of comments. Becoming critical of their responses, we begin to dwell on the negatives when we ought to expand the positives. Even if there are genuine problems, we have to decide whether we are going to focus on the disappointments or choose to accentuate the positives.

2. Learn from them. No matter what our parents are like, they possess two things that we don’t—age and experience. With age comes experience and wisdom. And the older one becomes, the longer he has had to develop personal gifts and talents. Each of us can learn from our parents. They have lived a life different from ours, in a world different from ours.

We can ask ourselves several questions about our parents.

  • “What are their gifts?”
  • “Do they have wisdom?”
  • “Do they do something well?”
  • “Do they have a unique talent they could teach us?”

Some time ago, my husband, John, was struggling with a personnel problem in his office. He was really stuck and did not know how to handle the potentially explosive situation. He desperately needed wisdom and felt that he didn’t have much! So he picked up the phone and called my mother. This was perfectly natural, because one of my mother’s gifts is wisdom. She has had much experience with people, and she has an unusual ability to see clearly in the midst of a mess. She listened and was able to give my husband several insights that helped him decide what to do. It was mutually beneficial. He was helped by her insights and she was encouraged by being needed. And their friendship grew a little deeper because of his trust in her judgment.

3. Initiate activities and show thoughtfulness.  It’s so easy to expect our parents to initiate activities with us. After all, they are our parents. We’ve grown up responding to them. So we wait, longing to spend time with them and wondering if and when they’ll make a move toward us. Could it be that they need us to reach out to them? Yes. We can’t expect our parents to continually take the initiative for getting together with us.

Jodie has had a difficult relationship with her dad, and yet she longs to grow closer to him. As we chatted one day, I asked her, “What does your dad like to do?”

After thinking for a moment, she replied, “Well, he often takes walks.”

“Ask him if you could join him for a walk,” I suggested. “Go with him with no agenda other than to enjoy being with him. And go as often as you can. It may feel awkward at first, but if you persist, you’ll be surprised at how much more comfortable you both will become. Walks are ‘his thing,’ and you need to go where he is comfortable. You’ll be amazed how a simple gesture like a walk can open the doors to a deeper relationship.”

4. Care for them when they are old and ill.  How you do this will vary with your circumstances. As we remember our two essentials—consider what is best for your own family, and consider how to honor your parents.

What are their needs? Where do you live in relation to them? What extended-family support is available? What resources such as financial, health care, housing, etc., are available?

Then, consider the needs of your immediate family. If you are struggling with toddlers or both husband and wife are working in careers with little flexibility, your options will be limited. If you are single or do not have children, you may be in a better position to help.

Communicate clearly with your extended family as you make decisions about your aging parents. Working together to solve problems could become an opportunity for brothers and sisters to deepen their friendships.

You must be willing to sacrifice time, space in your home, and financial resources to care for your parents. It won’t be easy. Caring for older parents can be inconvenient and time-consuming. But just remember, you weren’t easy to care for as their baby. You were hard to raise and often exasperating. You demanded sacrifice. Now it is your turn to honor them and sacrifice for them.

5. Maintain a sense of humor.  Sometimes we feel like the children and our parents feel like our parents. Then, suddenly, they act like children and we feel like the parents. The relationship has turned upside down and it feels very strange. It’s difficult to find oneself parenting parents.

Trish is a single parent in her fifties. Her daughter, Wendy, is 27 and lives with her. One evening Trish went with a blind date to the theater. She expected to return home right after the show, but she and her date were having such a good time, they went out for a late dinner. When she opened the front door, it was 1 A.M. Suddenly the hall light came on, and there stood a very sleepy, very concerned daughter.

“Mother,” she exclaimed, “where have you been? You are later than you said you would be. And I didn’t know anything about your date. You could have been in real trouble. I was about to call the police.”

As Trish stood on the steps, she experienced a sudden flashback of herself in the same position years earlier! After Trish apologized to her daughter for causing concern, the two had a good laugh about their role reversals.

6. Prepare for “no regrets.”  When our parents and in-laws die, we want to look back with a sense of gratitude rather than a feeling of regret. “But you don’t know how bad my relationship with my parents has been,” you might respond.

That’s right. I don’t know … but God does. And He has been there with you even in the most painful times. No matter how difficult your family relationships were, you must believe that your parents did the best they could, given what they themselves came from. Hardly any parent sets out to do a bad job of raising his own children. The good news is that it is never too late to do what is right, to get things straightened out, to ask for forgiveness, and to start over.

Pat was raised in an abusive home. Her only brother adopted the gay lifestyle, and she became estranged from her father. Recently, her brother was diagnosed with AIDS. The same week her father was told that he had terminal cancer. Pat longed to minister to both her brother and father, but she knew that in her father’s case, she needed to forgive him before she could help him. It was painful and difficult, but with God’s tender mercy she forgave her dad, and just before he died, he gave his life to Christ and asked for His forgiveness.

Then as she nursed her brother in his final days, he too surrendered his life to a loving heavenly Father who understands pain and who is able to forgive and restore relationships.

Pat’s story is one of gratitude for relationships redeemed instead of regret and bitterness for relationships lost. Each of us must do all we can to live with “no regrets.” We don’t know what the future holds, and we don’t want to look back and say, “I didn’t get to tell him I was sorry,” or “I wish I had told her I loved her.”

Sometimes it’s helpful to look ahead and ask ourselves, “How will I look back on this time in a few years?” We may realize that we need to forgive or to ask for forgiveness, we may need to write a letter expressing love, or we may need to give the gift of our time to sit with a parent who is ill. Whatever we must do, we should do it now, for we may not have as much time left as we think we do.

Excerpted from A House Full of Friends by Susan Alexander Yates. Copyright © 1995 by Susan Alexander Yates. Used with permission.